House Bill Raises Welfare Work Requirement

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 27, 2005

The House has included a major restructuring of the nation's welfare system in its massive budget cutting bill, which would substantially increase the hours of work, training and community service the poor would have to perform to qualify for assistance.

President Bush has sought the changes for nearly four years but has been unable to get them through the Senate. Now Republicans have slipped them into a voluminous bill designed to save nearly $50 billion over five years by imposing new costs on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting federal child support enforcement, narrowing eligibility for food stamps and trimming agriculture subsidies.

Those cuts have been the focal point of debate over the bill, while 71 pages of the 830-page measure that are devoted to changes in welfare have gone largely unnoticed. Administration and House Republican officials say such budget bills -- which are easier to pass because they cannot be filibustered in the Senate -- are designed to make necessary but difficult changes to entitlement programs such as welfare.

But Democratic lawmakers and governors from both parties say such broad changes should be debated and voted on separately.

"What you're seeing is a way for them to hide the issue," said Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means subcommittee that has jurisdiction over welfare. "It's a familiar technique for issues that can't be passed otherwise."

The changes would have a huge impact on the lives of the 2 million adult Americans who remain on welfare. For states to avoid federal sanctions, most recipients would have to spend 40 hours a week in activities out of the house, substantially more than they do now.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups charge that the harsher work rules are not backed up by the funding to subsidize child care. Moreover, the larger budget bill's cuts to food stamps and Medicaid could add still more financial pressure as welfare recipients transition to the ranks of the working poor.

"There is no good argument for these increased work requirements," said Peter Edelman, a Georgetown University law professor who quit the Clinton administration in protest over the 1996 welfare restructuring. "People have demonstrated they wanted to get off welfare and go to work. They don't need an extra push with a stick."

The new changes are a follow-on to the 1996 bill, whose supporters argued it was needed to end the cycle of dependence on government.

Wade Horn, the assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, disputed critics who opposed the 1996 changes, which he said have been successful. The changes in the House bill reflect the reality that part-time, low-wage work cannot lift a family out of poverty, but even at modest wages, workers can pull themselves above the poverty line working full time and collecting the earned income tax credit, he said.

"We're not big, mean conservatives, trying to punish the poor," he said. "States have been focusing on part-time work because that's what we told them to do. The standard should be what most Americans think work is: full-time work."

Some welfare recipients such as Shontice Fields, 27, would face significant upheaval. Under District of Columbia rules, Fields's life is already complicated. She is up by 6:30 a.m. to get her sons, Teshon, 2, and Terrell, 6, ready for day care and school. By 7:30, Teshon has been delivered to his babysitter. By 8:45, Fields is back at her C Street NE home to walk Terrell to school.

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